So how did California’s teacher tenure laws violate the state constitution? The court’s two-part reasoning was thin to the point of being emaciated. First, it observed that the state constitution guarantees a right to education and guarantees equal protection of the laws. Second, it “found” that teacher tenure laws can tenure ineffective teachers – which it said was a violation of California children’s right to education.
The logic of this holding is pretty obviously flawed. All sorts of policies and rules affect the quality of what goes on in the classroom. Do all policies that reduce the quality of education violate the state constitution? Obviously not – or the court would have to take over the state school system and review every lesson plan for effectiveness. There was also no precedent supporting this expansive reading of the state constitution.
Eric Posner remains unimpressed by Judge Treu’s reasoning:
One of the reasons that employers – and not just public schools, but regular commercial firms, as well as universities and many private schools – offer job security is that employees value it so much. They’re willing to accept a lower salary in return for job security. The employer faces a tradeoff: it loses some ability to control employees, but it saves a lot of money, which it can use for other things. And so with the schools. If California is no longer allowed to offer job security, it will either need to pay teachers more (leaving less money to spend on students) or hire fewer teachers. Is that going to advance education? The court has no idea, indeed doesn’t seem to have given any thought to these issues.
The long and the short of it is that a judge is in no position to make these tradeoffs.
Kevin Carey – generally a supporter of education reform – argues that the courts are “an inherently problematic venue in which to resolve fundamental education questions”:
Deciding whether schools are providing children with a good enough learning environment requires us to decide what we want our children to learn and what kind of citizens we want them to be. That, in turn, flows from our convictions and values about the nature of just and civilized society. Such questions can never be resolved with legal finality. They represent the unending project of debate in an open society, the balancing of sometimes irreconcilable priorities that we manage with democratic and inherently political institutions. Which means that we should expect more Vergaras in the future – and expect to never be fully satisfied with the result.
Jill Barshay notes that the research underlying the ruling is controversial:
Many researchers are questioning whether test-score gains are a good measure of teacher effectiveness. Part of the problem are the standardized tests themselves. In some cases, there are ceiling effects where bright students are already scoring near the top and can’t show huge gains year after year. In other cases, struggling students may be learning two years of math in one year, say catching up from a second-grade to a fourth-grade math level. But the fifth-grade test questions can’t capture the gains of kids who are behind. The test instead concludes that the kids have learned nothing. In both of these cases, with top and bottom students, the teachers would be labeled as ineffective. Morgan Polikoff of the University of Southern California and Andrew Porter of the University of Pennsylvania looked at these value-added measures in six districts around the nation and found that there was weak to zero relationship between these new numbers and the content or quality of the teacher’s instruction. Their research was published in May 2014, after the Vegara trial ended.
Teacher attrition is sky-high, with best estimates of between 40 to 50 percent leaving the profession within five years of starting. That amounts to something like a thousand teachers quitting for every school day of a given year. Anecdotally speaking, most successful, Ivy League striver-types do not consider teaching as a serious option. But why would they, when there’s so many more remunerative, less stressful, less emotionally grueling, and better respected options out there? If your argument is that a profession’s problems stems from a talent deficit, you should be doing everything to make the job more attractive, not less.
But Ed Morrissey suggests the ruling could be a mark a turning point:
Treu’s ruling does not rely on the US Constitution, and it has yet to be endorsed by a state appellate court as of yet. It is a signal, though, that people are fed up feeding tens of billions of dollars into educational systems that produce poor results, and that disgust over the priorities of the people within the system has reached a level where even the judiciary can no longer ignore it. California’s legislature had better take this lesson and apply it regardless of whether the ruling holds up on appeal.
And Eric Hanushek sees nothing but positives:
A small percentage of teachers inflicts disproportionate harm on children. Each year a grossly ineffective teacher continues in the classroom reduces the future earnings of the class by thousands of dollars by dramatically lowering the college chances and employment opportunities of students. There is also a national impact. The future economic well being of the United States is entirely dependent on the skills of our population. Replacing the poorest performing 5 to 8 percent of teachers with an average teacher would, by my calculations, yield improved productivity and growth that amounts to trillions of dollars.